Decadence in Modern Chinese Literature and Culture:
A Comparative and Literary-Historical Reevaluation

By Hongjian Wang

Reviewed by Nan Hu

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright November, 2021)

Hongjian Wang, Decadence in Modern Chinese Literature and Culture: A Comparative and Literary-Historical Reevaluation Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2020. viii+252 pp. ISBN: 9781621965435 (hardcover).

Decadence in Modern Chinese Literature and Culture: A Comparative and Literary-Historical Reevaluation is a necessary and long-awaited revision to the extant scholarship and common perceptions of “Decadent” literature in China.[1] Following an introductory discussion of the history and origins of the term, Hongjian Wang works through a series of studies of seven prominent writers, devoting a separate chapter to each and revealing not only specific ways in which each writer engages with Decadence, but also the cultural and social dynamics fueling the emergence and development of Chinese Decadent literature from the 1920s through the 2000s. Along with the introduction and a conclusion, the seven chapters are divided into three thematically- and chronologically-titled parts: Part I, “Seeing Romanticism through Decadence: Tuifei Writers in the 1920s and 1930s,” is comprised of one chapter on Yu Dafu 郁达夫 and one on Shao Xunmei 邵洵美; Part II, “Farewell to Revolution: Critical Fin-De-Siécle-ization in the Late 1980s and Early 1990s,” analyzes the works of Yu Hua 余华 and Su Tong 苏童, respectively; while Part III, “Performing Perversion: Decadence with Chinese Characteristics from the Mid-1980s to the Turn of the Century,” looks at three writers—Wang Shuo 王朔, Wang Xiaobo 王小波, and Yin Lichuan 尹丽川. Regarding the gap from the late 1930s to the late 1970s, Wang explains that Decadent writing at that time was suppressed by patriotic and nationalistic discourses during the second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) and then by leftist/communist-inspired politics and ideology in the subsequent civil war (1945-1949) and throughout the Mao era (1949-1976).

Wang begins her monograph with an introduction titled “Decadence Versus Tuifei.” She intervenes in the “far from settled” debate on the inception of the notion of [European] Decadence in modern Chinese literature, including an investigation into the meaning of the term “Decadence,” which is normally translated as “tuifei” (颓废). She also probes the reasons that certain literary works have come to be viewed—as well as “creatively ‘misinterpreted’” (2)—as tuifei in the Chinese context, and reexamines the simplistic and moralistic criticisms that have been leveled at “Decadent” literary works. Wang reveals, among other things, how the European Decadent movement and figures were significantly different from their Chinese counterparts—or those that have been identified and accepted as their counterparts. The introduction nicely summarizes the Decadent movement in late nineteenth-century France and Britain, its themes and styles, bringing to light ways in which Decadent literary texts embodied the writers’ active responses to their social context. Wang shows that Decadence resulted from “the booming of commercialization and the rise of the middle class” (7) in late-nineteenth-century Europe, when ordinary people could buy their way up the social ladder. To “maintain their spiritual aristocracy” (8), elitist writers resorted to Decadence in their opposition to “nature,” pursuit of complex forms, and fascination with the sensuous, the eccentric, and the perverse. Through their notion of Decadence, these writers rebelled against dominant worldviews and mores, including Rousseauian naturalism, Catholicism, etc. However, Wang argues that this rebellion needs to be regarded as a performance: the Decadent writers were at heart true believers of the norms that they positioned themselves against, and their revolt was merely for show, designed to assert their originality and spiritual superiority over the middle class. Another internal paradox of Decadence, Wang posits, is that the pursuit of superiority and originality is never-ending. Once the general public began to copy the elitists’ art, Decadent writing was no longer unique, and the writers had to either rebel against themselves or admit their failure. In this sense, the Chinese tuifei, signifying “a pessimistic worldview combined with an indulgence in physical pleasures” (18), by no means corresponds point-by-point to the story of European Decadence.

Having assessed the larger literary-historical context of the origin of European Decadent literature, in a subsection titled “Tuifei in Debate” (17-28), Wang evaluates some contemporary studies undertaken by a few prominent scholars of modern Chinese literature and culture, then proceeds to a summary of her own approach and methodology, under the category of “Decadence in Comparison” (28-34). Her key critical touchstone is to “acknowledg[e] the critical value of the concept of tuifei” by examining twentieth-century Chinese literature “through the lens of European Decadence” (29). She further specifies her method as one of approaching “the sociocultural conditions of Decadence” not through specific themes or styles but rather by “following the logic of Decadent works—the rebellion against the norms one believes in for the sake of brandishing one’s individual free will and spiritual superiority” (30). This leads to “a comprehensive explanation of why Decadence happened, how it worked, and what caused its hasty demise” (ibid).

Wang’s rereading of Chinese tuifei writings from the perspective of Decadence in the European sense begins in 1920s and 1930s China, when works from the European movement were strategically interpreted “in Romantic terms” rather than as Decadent. Chapter 1 focuses on Yu Dafu, one of the most famous writers to have been tagged as tuifei, and a pioneering figure in the introduction of European Decadent literature to China. Wang offers nuanced readings of a series of Yu’s well-known works, including “Sinking” (沉沦), “Silver-gray Death” (银灰色的死), “The Boundless Night” (茫茫夜), and “She Is a Weak Woman” (她是一个弱女子). Many of Yu’s works feature themes of sexual repression, which have often been interpreted as embodiments of or metaphors for China’s national crisis. However, Wang shows that personal desire and sexual frustration in Yu’s work are real and sincere, not merely literary devices, and she reads them in the context of his relationship to Confucian social mores. While Confucianism largely shaped Yu’s thoughts, his commitment to a new morality, including the pursuit of personal and sexual fulfillment, was ardent. In this sense, Yu’s rebellion against the Confucian tradition was sincere, not merely a performance of the perverse, as in the case of the European Decadents. What’s more, there is no profession of originality or intellectual superiority in Yu’s sensual writings, which further rules him out as a Chinese version of the European Decadent.

Chapter 2 turns to the case of Shao Xunmei, who is commonly known for being a sensual poet and urban dandy of 1920s and 1930s Shanghai. Reexamining Shao’s biographies, essays, and poems, Wang reveals heretofore ignored aspects of this writer and demonstrates that he was not a Decadent as commonly believed. Wang first takes a close look at Shao’s life, especially his career as a visionary publisher, and argues that he was by no means a “perpetually bored and self-indulgent” Decadent hero but “one of the most robust, socially engaged, and enterprising young intellectuals in China, full of hope and ambition” (64). Second, Wang revisits Shao’s appreciation for Sappho (630-580 BC) and European Decadent poets and shows that what appealed to him were their themes of love, unbounded passion, and resistance to oppression. Third, while Shao’s own poems are replete with paeans to love and erotic imagery, Wang argues that Shao invokes sexual love in order to “denounce the tyranny of morality and authority” (75). With these rich and original readings, Wang shows that Shao was a Romantic who had more in common with his fellow poets in the Crescent Moon School (新月派) than with the European Decadents.

Part II jumps to the 1980s and examines two prominent avant-garde writers, Yu Hua and Su Tong, who have been viewed by critics as tuifei. However, neither of them, according to Wang, is Decadent in the European sense. In Chapter 3, Wang focuses on Yu Hua’s important early works such as “On the Road at Eighteen” (十八岁出门远行), “One Kind of Reality” (现实一种), “1986” (一九八六年), and “The April 3rd Incident” (四月三日事件). She reexamines Yu Hua’s depictions of mysticism, excessive violence, and cruelty in these stories. While other scholars see these works as deconstructing the discourses of humanism, enlightenment, and rationality promoted by twentieth-century Chinese intellectuals since the May Fourth generation, Wang argues that Yu Hua continues to uphold these same ideals. His motivation for focusing on violence and death was, therefore, “to condemn and to expose” (108), which recalls Lu Xun 鲁迅’s professed reason for writing: “revealing their sickness and suffering might draw attention to their plight so that a cure might be found” (揭出病苦,引起疗救的注意).[2] Furthermore, although Yu Hua’s early works resonate with some values of the European Decadents, his concerns were of a fundamentally different order. Wang argues, “His obsession with evil is his way of exposing the darkness in a society poisoned by the Cultural Revolution, rather than a postmodern statement or a perverse rebellion” (33). This also explains Yu Hua’s turn from avant-garde experimentalism to realism and humanism in the 1990s: he has never really rejected those practices and values, never rebelled against the May Fourth tradition.

Chapter 4 analyses Su Tong’s major works of the late 1980s and the early 1990s, including “The Escape in 1934” (一九三四年的逃亡), “Opium Family” (罂粟之家), “Raise the Red Lantern” (妻妾成群), Rice (米), and My Life as an Emperor (我的帝王生涯). Wang recognizes Su Tong as a decadent writer in the Nietzschean sense and not in the European sense of Decadence. To Nietzsche, decadence is “against life, against the will to life. It is the weakening or loss of the will to pursue natural instincts, to resist stimuli, and to maintain a systematic, indeed hierarchical, order among the impulses of life” (115). Su Tong’s characters in his colorful and morbid fictional world are usually passive, weak, showing no will to live. Even his seemingly strong and ruthless characters have little real agency, and their actions are not propelled by self-determination but are at best reactions to their sufferings, which make them decadents in Nietzsche’s sense. Furthermore, neither Su Tong nor his characters, in Wang’s reading, show any concern for their originality or spiritual superiority, which to the author distances them from the European Decadents.

Part III covers three writers from the mid-1980s to the beginning of the twenty-first century—Wang Shuo, Wang Xiaobo, and Yin Lichuan—arguing that all three ought to be identified as Decadent writers in the European sense. Chapter 5 concerns Wang Shuo’s life and works, focusing on Half Flame, Half Sea (一半是火焰,一半是海水), “The Master of Mischief” (顽主), and “Animals Going Wild” (动物凶猛), among others. While it is commonly asserted that Wang Shuo rejects mainstream morality, the author shows in this chapter that his contempt is a pretense. Detailed close reading demonstrates that behind the facade of defiance and rebellion, there are identifiable social values that Wang Shuo and his characters embrace, including friendship, revolutionary heroism, and optimism. This chapter also mentions Wang Shuo’s identity as a privileged elite who grew up in a military compound in the Mao era, and further explains the motivation behind his ostensible rebellion and hooliganism in the early post-Mao era as expressions of European-styled Decadent superiority over the ordinary masses. When many ordinary Chinese could only strive for government-assigned jobs in order to survive, Wang Shuo types escaped from mundane life, blithely squandered their resources, and allowed themselves to get lost in the pursuit of “the meaning of life.” Performing revolt to disguise what they actually believed while simultaneously claiming their spiritual superiority, Wang Shuo and his characters stand as descendants of the European Decadents.

Chapter 6 turns to Wang Xiaobo, revisiting his essays and stories, including “The Fun of Thinking” (思维的乐趣), “A Maverick Hog” (一只特立独行的猪), “The Golden Age” (黄金时代), “Love in the Time of Revolution” (革命时期的爱情), etc. In these texts, reason and intellectual freedom are the most important themes, but as Hongjian Wang keenly observes, some of Wang Xiaobo’s major characters make choices that contradict their own beliefs, desires, and interests. This chapter interprets these irrational and self-destructive actions as Decadent, the characters doing this to prove their own free will, courage, and individuality. These choices also showcase Wang’s own existential anxiety. Born in a Ministry of Education compound full of professors and intellectuals, Wang Xiaobo had always identified himself as an elite and firmly believed in intellectualism. Thus, in the wave of commercialization starting from the end of the 1980s, Wang, as a member of the increasingly inconsequential intellectual elite, resorted to Decadent writing to distinguish himself from the rest of society, and display his unique individuality and intellectual superiority.

Chapter 7 adds another Decadent writer, Yin Lichuan, to this group, with a focus on her poems and novel written in the first years of the twenty-first century. As a leading figure in “lower-body writing” (下半身写作), Yin has always been viewed as quintessentially rebellious, and this book confirms her status as a true Decadent writer. Her Decadence comes not only from her descriptions of sexuality, but more importantly also from her contradictory relationship to the idea of an ordinary, everyday life as reflected in her writing. As shown in this chapter, Yin cherishes “peace, warmth, happiness, and strength embodied in everyday life,” but “is repulsed by its unoriginality and unreflectiveness” and this aligns her with the Decadents (187). The case of Yin Lichuan also reveals the paradoxes within Decadence, showing that as rebellion repeats itself and becomes a norm, and as ordinary people copy the Decadent elites, Decadence is no longer Decadence, and rebellion is made moot. This is the inevitable fate of Yin’s and all Decadent writing, Wang contends.

Having concluded her historical survey and case studies of individual authors, Wang’s discussion naturally proceeds to the question of how and why Decadence did not emerge in Chinese literature until the mid-1980s. Wang answers this question in her Conclusion, focusing on Chinese writers’ elitist status. Chinese intellectuals in the 1920s and 1930s assumed the mission of enlightening the masses and rescuing the nation; the national crisis was so severe, and their sense of mission so strong, that they felt no need to reflect critically on their moral and cultural authority. Jumping to the late 1970s and the early 1980s, when the Writers’ Association provided authors with a privileged life and allowed only “serious literature” to be published, professional writers had no need to compete with popular writers in the market and were able to maintain their authority and autonomy. Not until the second half of the 1980s when the newly capitalist-styled economy started to dominate the literary market did Chinese writers begin struggling to publish and maintain their sociocultural status. This era witnessed the marginalization of military elites (Wang Shuo) and intellectual elites (Wang Xiaobo), as China’s focus turned from revolution to Reform and Opening Up and the state withdrew its “ideological endorsement” and “material sponsorship” (219) for these groups. Therefore, ironically, “it was the socialist system that prepared the crucial conditions for the rise of Decadence in late-twentieth-century China” (219).

Decadence in Modern Chinese Literature and Culture: A Comparative and Literary-Historical Reevaluation is important because, first, it clarifies terms and concepts like Decadence that scholars in Chinese studies have been using indiscriminately for years without tracing its source and meaning. Prior to this book, no systematic attempt had been made to compare Chinese tuifei writings to European Decadent works or to examine how this imported concept was adopted and (mis)interpreted. In much or all current Chinese literary scholarship, Decadence is caught up in awkward and vague relations with Aestheticism, Modernism, Romanticism, Eroticism, the avant-garde, etc. Wang’s book carefully uncovers the denotations and connotations of Decadence and leads us out of the maze of entangled terms. By so doing, Wang distances the scholarly discourse from the moralistic and simplistic judgments that have often been foisted on tuifei literature, and reveals new and subtle meanings in these writers’ works. For example, instead of tagging Shao Xunmei’s poems as tuifei and simply denouncing them as vulgar and mediocre, Wang reexamines his career and works in comparison with the European Decadents and discovers hidden details and nuances that effectively challenge our understanding of this poet. Finally, methodologically, Wang combines comparative literature with cultural history and pays special attention to the sociocultural conditions that gave rise to the Decadent style, especially the privileged status of intellectuals. Her interdisciplinary approach offers new insights into the ever-changing status of cultural elites in China, and her argument that the socialist system gave rise to Chinese Decadent literature is particularly impressive.

The author’s concern with clarifying terminology does raise some potential issues. With its stated goal of reexamining Decadence in Chinese literature, one of the book’s primary objectives is to make clear, through comparison with the European movement, which writers in modern China were Decadent and which of them do not belong to this group. Given the specific nature of this discussion and its special attention to sociocultural elements, Wang attaches great importance to a writer’s and his/her fictional characters’ sense of spiritual superiority, her argumentation sometimes waxing teleological and simplistic. For example, in Chapter 6, when discussing why Wang Xiaobo’s characters make self-destructive choices, the book argues that the characters believe themselves to be asserting their free will, which to my mind is not sufficiently convincing. It might have been worthwhile to enrich the reading of spiritual superiority with other analytical tools and reference to concepts such as identity politics and sadomasochism, which Wang touches on only briefly. Another potential problem is that the means for actually evaluating Decadence in Chinese literature remain vaguely elaborated. As the author admits, Decadence in Wang Shuo’s and Wang Xiaobo’s writings remains marginal and is “only a phase” (219), while only Yin Lichuan, a lesser-known writer among the seven, is argued to be the most thoroughgoing practitioner of Decadent rebellion. With much attention on earlier, not-exactly-Decadent writers—which is undoubtedly necessary—and with less discussion of those who indeed practice Decadent writing, the book’s picture of Decadence in Chinese literature is ultimately unclear. The reader may wonder: How many Decadent writers are there in China? Is there a group, a trend, or are there any connections among the writers? Is Decadent writing important in Chinese literature? It might have been helpful to situate Decadence in these larger contexts.

These qualifications notwithstanding, Decadence in Modern Chinese Literature and Culture makes a substantial and significant contribution to our understanding of European Decadence and its incarnations in twentieth-century China. With her nuanced and insightful close readings, Hongjian Wang reveals a group of writers struggling with the complexity of and entanglement with national crisis, ideological transitions, aesthetic trends, and their own values. This fascinating study should be recommended to all the scholars and students who are interested in Decadence and fin-de-siècle literature, twentieth-century Chinese literature, intellectual history, and comparative literature.

Nan Hu
Fudan University


[1] Wang capitalizes “Decadence” and “Decadent” throughout the book to refer specifically to the movement and aesthetic ideas that flourished in late-nineteenth-century France and Britain, represented by Charles Baudelaire, J. K. Huysmans, Oscar Wilde, and others. General notions of “decadence” are not capitalized. This choice of capitalization is, however, not clearly explained by the author.

[2] Translation by Jon Eugene von Kowallis, in Eileen J. Cheng and Kirk A. Denton, eds., Jottings under Lamplight: Lu Xun (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017), p. 54.